01/15/2013 08:04 am ET Updated Mar 16, 2013

Are We Getting Dumber With Age?

If you're like me, you've already experienced some of the difficulties associated with aging: weird moles, sagging everything, the death of people you love. While I haven't taken any of these developments with good grace, I've been comforted by the fact that, any day now, I will wake up bathed in the gentle glow of wisdom that is supposed to be the payoff for all this crap.

Instead, I seem to be getting dumber.

Take parking. Not only have I lost the ability to parallel park -- or, as my daughter says, "Don't worry, Mom, I can walk to the curb from here" -- I also routinely forget where I've left the car. My office has a five-floor parking garage, and each morning I have to photograph the floor number so I can find my vehicle at the end of the day.

Keys are another challenge -- or rather, my absolute certainty that I have forgotten to put them in my purse. You know the scene in Titanic where water starts pouring onto the lower decks? I experience that level of anxiety every morning when it's time to leave the house. Only after I have frantically dumped the contents of my bag on the coffee table do I realize that, yes, my keys are right where I left them.

According to Eric Braverman, MD, author of Younger Brain, Sharper Mind (Rodale 2012), the difference between a resourceful mind and senility is only 100 milliseconds of brain speed. "Typically, we lose seven to 10 milliseconds -- a tenth of a second -- per decade from age 20 on, which means that aging alone causes us to lose brain cells and processing speed," Dr. Braverman informs us.

And what do we get in return? Barbara Strauch, author of The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain (Viking 2010), says older folks are "better able to make accurate judgements" because "our brains build up patterns of connections, interwoven layers of knowledge that allow us to recognize similarities of situations and see solutions."

Strauch does admit that "the average 25-year-old [brain] has a much faster processing speed and also has an easier time learning and memorizing." But, she adds, "middle-aged brains get the big picture faster."

Unfortunately, the big picture I'm getting is that my intelligence is draining out like sand through a sieve.

My father, who experienced a similar level of brain-speed loss in his 50s, started calling everything he couldn't remember "the fern." "Pick up the fern on your way to the party (or sometimes, "to the Fern's party,") he would remind us.

Sometimes we figured out what he was talking about; often we didn't. Either way, he got a big laugh out of it.

Which may be as close as any of us gets to wisdom.

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

Marilu Henner's Memory Makeover Tips